It's hard to pinpoint one “greatest” achievement with 30 years of service under your belt. But Christine Andersen says that adding a public information position in the 1980s was a significant move that impacted Eugene, Ore.'s Public Works Department for years to come.

Though such positions in public service departments are fairly common today, hers was a forward-thinking—and unheard of—decision for that decade.

“I knew that communications was a gap that needed to be filled,” says Andersen. “If the community doesn't understand the value of services provided, the community can't support those services.”

About a year into Andersen's tenure as director, the department undertook an extensive sewer line project that affected 20,000 residents—and required finessed communications between the department and the public. She hired a public information officer for the project, and used the project's success to make the case to city officials for a permanent position.

With the communications position in place, the department was able to educate constituents about public works services and projects through engaging methods, i.e.:

  • The annual report, once laden with charts, graphs, and numbers, was redesigned for readability and understandability.
  • The department hosted events inviting the public to visit the yard, learn about public works jobs, and even operate equipment. “That was pretty cutting-edge back in those days,” Andersen says.

Developing internal communications increased awareness of what was going on inside the department, and external communications helped generate community support. In the case of one environmental project, says Andersen, “it helped turn the concept of wetlands from ‘swampland' to ‘valued land' in residents' eyes.”

Engaging the community also helped the department build volunteer programs and inform residents about recycling and conservation.

“We worked more effectively with the community because we were building communication methods into the start of each project,” says Andersen. “If we couldn't tell our story, we'd lose opportunities to show why we needed support and funding.”

What Andersen did 20 years ago is now routine for many departments. “We've pretty much turned that corner in most agencies. It's exciting to see.”

Public works runs in Ron Calkins' blood.

His father Myron—named Top Ten Leader in 1973—was Kansas City, Mo.'s public works director for 22 years; and his twin brother, Don, is assistant general manager of public utilities in Anaheim, Calif.

And after serving as Ventura's city engineer for seven years, Ron began walking in his father's footsteps when he became director of public works. That was 15 years ago.

Since then, Calkins has spearheaded a community beautification project and coordinated a citywide green initiative that decreased energy use by 25% within two years. He also created an employee recognition program and drought-proofed Ventura's water supply.

Last year alone, he:

  • Installed a photovoltaic system that generates just 40% of the maintenance yard's electricity
  • Converted 100 vehicles and other fleet equipment to biodiesel
  • Adopted green building standards for construction projects
  • Installed one of the West Coast's first solar-powered trash compactors
  • Increased the city's solid waste diversion rate to 70%, one of the highest in the state
  • Launched a fuel conservation plan
  • Reduced pesticide use in city parks by 31%
  • Completed construction of a water-treatment plant that provides 10-mgd advanced surface water treatment.

Since the mid-1980s, the Missouri City Public Works Department had operated under a top-down decision-making approach that prevented front-line employees from resolving issues while in the field. Instead, citizen requests were taken back to the front office to wait in queues for the public works director to review.

“Crew leaders were just higher paid crew members,” says Scott Elmer.

When Elmer was promoted to director of public works in 2006, he realigned the department to empower employees at every level, allowing them to take immediate action—and improve city services. By mid-2007 the new policy was in place.

“Now crew leaders have the authority and the responsibility,” explains Elmer.

For instance, if a public works employee is repairing a pothole and notices that a street sign needs to be replaced, that employee can call the sign division directly. Or if a crew is repairing a curb and a neighbor approaches them about another crumbling curb, the crew can fix that curb immediately. No queues. No waiting.

Elmer encourages a team atmosphere that utilizes employee talents and interests, no matter their division. For instance, a GIS technician heads a team to bring green technologies to the fleet division. “There's not a person in my department with a stronger desire for a green fleet,” says Elmer.

He also believes in matching employee preferences with jobs: “If your employee would rather be out working in the heat, why put him in the air conditioning making signs?”

The crucial step toward empowerment, for Elmer, is communication. He talks to employees and asks key questions, like “what tool would help you get your job done better, faster?”

“If you're not authentic as a leader, and don't take an interest in the people and their jobs, you're not going to get the most that you can out of them,” says Elmer.

Adjusting to a new way of working involves some pretty big attitude shifts by employees, says Elmer. And though he calls the restructuring a work in progress, he also says the department is light years ahead of where it was 18 months ago. Operations are more efficient, and he now receives innovative ideas from employees at all levels.

“Our department has come together as a family, and employees are supportive of each other.”

Leslie Henley understands the economic importance of the Las Vegas Strip—the hotels, casinos, restaurants, and stores that line Las Vegas Boulevard—to the state. So he takes pride in his responsibilities associated with the Strip. He manages the construction and maintenance of award-winning landscaping, pedestrian bridges, elevators, and escalators, plus he manages roadway improvements and repairs, and street sweeping.

In his more than 17 years of service with one of the nation's fastest-growing counties, he has delivered more than 600 projects in excess of $1.5 billion. Among his accomplishments are a 53-mile, $800 million freeway facility passing through three other jurisdictions; and the development of vehicle-arresting barriers for Las Vegas Boulevard to protect large, special-event crowds from terrorist-type events.

Projects built under Henley's tenure have earned numerous awards, including the APWA Nevada Chapter “Project of the Year”; Institute of Transportation Engineers Intermountain Section “Transportation of the Year”; American Society of Landscape Architects “Landscape Project of the Year”; and Precast Concrete Association “Pre-cast Project of the Year.”

“Les reminds us that, because of where we work, we get to do things that no one else experiences,” says Bobby Shelton, the department's public information officer. “Frequent building implosions, billion-dollar resort construction projects, and the biggest New Year's Eve party in the world just add to the fun.”

Dwayne Kalynchuk has done a lot in his three-decade career: led a team that developed an asset management system for $4 billion worth of infrastructure, reviewed urban infrastructure in Vietnam. And now he's responsible for one of the most challenging wastewater projects in North America.

But he's most proud of his work on Canada's first skateboard park.

Working—and connecting—with youth to construct the concrete skate-board park was “one of the most rewarding challenges in my career,” says Kalynchuk. The park, located in St. Albert, Alberta, also features 40 miles of paved trails, interactive viewing platforms, and a heritage village that preserves two turn-of-the-century grain elevators.

The seeds for the skateboard part of the park were planted in 1995 when the mayor told him that she'd met with a bunch of “young boarders” who requested a place to practice.

“I certainly was leery. All I could think about was cost, liability, and maintenance,” says Kalynchuk.

But he met the youth group with an open mind. Two years later, the city built an award-winning skateboard park. Within months its use was so high the city began planning an expansion. Now 15 years old, the park hasn't faced a single liability issue.

During construction, Kalynchuk's challenge was simple: understand the park's purpose. “I got to know what skateboarding is all about, and while graffiti isn't acceptable, I learned that ‘tagging' is part of the culture,” he explains.

In turn, he helped the students understand the budget process, grant applications, and construction permits and contracting.

Plus, through such activities as a project open house in which the skate-boarders participated, he worked to convince the community that the skateboarders wouldn't invite crime and corruption.

Once police called him after catching peoples pray-painting the new park. Much to their shock, Kalynchuk advised letting the “artists” finish their work.

“The next day I went out to see the tagging—which was extremely creative—and in the corner of the painting they spelled ‘Big ups to Mr. K.',” he says. “I went home that night feeling good about my job!”

For Samuel Lamerato, managing a fleet involves rising to new challenges even as he's getting ready for the next. His key to success: Staying ahead of the curve.

“We don't wait for new ideas or technologies to come to us—we come up with our own,” he says.

Under this philosophy, his division moved to synthetic oils, not 10 months ago, but 10 years ago. He also incorporated 10-hour work days several years ago; half of the 20-person crew gets Mondays off, and the other half gets Fridays. Plus, the division installed software in 2000 that enables the shop to run paperless.

These are hot-button topics now, but old-hat for Lamerato. And while most agencies are considering outsourcing, Lamerato is bringing in $500,000 by in-sourcing.

“That's added revenue for us in a time when most are trying to do more with less,” he says

The venture began five years ago when budgetary cuts forced a neighboring city to lay off employees and the city manager asked Lamerato to maintain its fire engines. Because Lamerato runs a two-shift operation—open 7 a.m. to 1 a.m.—his division was able to accommodate the extra work, including providing next-day service.

As word-of-mouth spread, other cities sought the division's bumper-to-bumper services. The division now has seven service agreements with surrounding cities and counties for as-needed services, charging $78/hour with a 20% markup on parts and fuel markups of 5 cents/gallon.

Thanks in part to the insourcing, says Lamerato, “we haven't lost one employee to tightening budgets. No jobs have had to be cut.”

Next on his list is leasing out vehicles and replacing some of his fleet with hybrid vehicles. So far, two city inspectors are driving Ford Hybrid Escapes.

“The thing that keeps you on the cutting edge is going to technical training sessions,” advises Lamerato. “I do two to three conferences a year that I pay for out of pocket. I look at it as an investment in my job, and in myself.”

Dick McKinley leads 240 employees in Bellingham's largest department. His management team sets the city standard for preparing and administering budgets. The water and sewer utilities launched a “cost of service” rate system that meets operational needs but is fair for customers. And McKinley himself has been awarded more than 80% of all grant requests he's written.

“We keep getting better at what we do,” says McKinley.

To foster an atmosphere of excellence, McKinley established an internal communications policy in the mid-1990s that includes making himself accessible to employees to answer questions, share expectations and values, and do a large amount of listening: He hosts quarterly “donut meetings” with each staff group.

“People want to be in the know, and they want to be respected. We do that every day here, which results in a team of dedicated professionals sharing a vision of community service,” says McKinley.

It took years to build trust between management and employees. “When you tell people you'll meet with them every quarter, they're skeptical—they've heard it before,” he says.

“When you do what you say, they start to believe.”

The meetings are paying off. As employees began to trust in his vision, he was able to change the culture from “nothing broken, no need to change” to “there's always room to get better.” Employees are ethics-driven, understand the importance of their work, and feel appreciated and respected. They expect—and deliver—excellence.

“The people here in this department are my favorite part of coming to work each day,” says McKinley. “The mentoring and teaching is now happening at every level in the organization.”

In October 2007, McKinley brought in his 10,000th donut.

In 2003, when Judith Mueller drafted the city's first Environmental Sustainability Policy, she spurred the Public Works Department to lead the charge in making Charlottesville a “green city,” complete with a vibrant urban forest of tree-lined streets and lush neighborhoods.

“This led the city to recognize its responsibility to future generations. It made us look at everything we do and how it impacts the environment,” says Mueller.

Her greatest challenge was to guide 330 employees into incorporating sustainability into everything they do.

Mueller started small. Her first step was to develop an environmental management system. Designed to protect the environment and the health and safety of employees and citizens, the system includes new and/or revised policies and processes to help reduce environmental impacts and increase operating efficiency.

The next step was to implement the system. This was done by breaking implementation into manageable phases—by division—with clear objectives and targets.

So far Mueller's initiative has led to:

  • Completion of a stormwater management study
  • A public rain garden
  • A LEED-certified transit station
  • A Web site on water conservation
  • A technical water and energy savings audit, which will launch a series of infrastructure improvements
  • A $3.2 million stream restoration project

The bonus: Employees are more enthusiastic about the initiative than Mueller could have hoped. “Once they realized that the system was developed to benefit them, they started to embrace it,” she says.

In the late 1990s, Steven Parkinson thought outside the box to move his department into a new facility at minimal cost to taxpayers.

For more than 40 years, the Portsmouth Public Works Department had operated out of an old brewery that was nothing more than a drafty barn with a series of additions and renovations. Adjacent to a residential area, the facility was old and unable to accommodate modern operations. Several divisions were located elsewhere.

To acquire the land needed for a new facility, Parkinson worked with the city manager to broker a deal with a nonprofit organization that exchanged eight acres in lieu of paying taxes. The city then sold the outdated building to a private developer for $1 million, which was used to finance the new facility.

‘With limited funds, most contractors weren't interested in our project and said there was no way we could do what we wanted,” says Parkinson. “We proved them wrong by using value engineering.” This included choosing cost-efficient materials and energy-efficient equipment, and leaving some areas unfinished to be completed at a later date.

The department partnered with a local building contractor to jointly construct the facility as a design-build process. To save money, the department did some work, while the contractor performed work outside the department's capabilities.

An existing building on the new land was converted to provide vehicle storage and workshop areas. All other buildings were knocked down to make room for a 20,000-square-foot, two-story administration building that has locker rooms, showers, break/training rooms, central heating/cooling, individual offices, meeting rooms, shop space, and storage areas. According to Parkinson, the above amenities were impossible to add at the old building.

Because the new facility is located in an industrial area, service vehicles now have better access to major roadway systems. Most importantly, it's large enough to house all public works divisions under one roof. “This fosters better communications between the divisions, and the sharing of specialized equipment and personnel,” says Parkinson.

The department moved into its new home in 2000. Since then, a salt shed, cold storage building, and a multi-material recycling center has been added, funded in part by royalties received from a cell tower located on the new property. And as funds are allocated within the city's Capital Improvement Program, Parkinson continues to make improvements.

“This facility has been a morale booster, creating a sense of pride for the men and women who work for the department,” says Parkinson. “In addition, the department's image has increased tenfold as members of the tax-paying public visit various sections to conduct business.”

In 1989, while working for the village of Brightwaters, N.Y., Harry Weed put it all on the line for a concept in which he strongly believed.

He introduced a curbside collection program that recycles plastic into lumber that was used to replace wooden bulkheads in the local canal, along the village's Great South Bay front, and in the community's five freshwater lakes.

To get the program off the ground, Weed not only had to lobby the New York State Department of Environmental Control to accept it, but he also had to promise the village board his job: “If the product failed, I was to resign,” he says. “It was a radical new concept, and we were going to use a product that never was used before.”

Weed chose recycled-plastic lumber, an emerging technology at the time, because the canal's bulkheads were under attack by marine borers; larval worms were eating through the wood and reducing its lifespan from 15 to 25 years to three to five years. He needed to find a material that could withstand the borers.

Now superintendent of public works in Rockville Centre, Weed's venture did not cost him his job. The project not only benefited the environment, it saved the village hundreds of thousands of dollars in maintenance costs. After all, recycled-plastic lumber is nontoxic, lasts longer than wood, and is more resistant to salt, rot, mildew—and insect infestation.

“To this day, 19 years later, the bulkhead looks like it did the day it went in.”

Top 10

Each year, the American Public Works Association names the industry's Top Ten Leaders of the Year during National Public Works Week. Designed to inspire—and reward—excellence and dedication in public service, the award program recognizes those who are deemed the best in the public works profession. Candidates come from both the public and private sectors and can be nominated by any group or individual. The focus of the award is career service. Next year marks the award program's 50th anniversary.